In this article, I explore how we support young children with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH). SEMH is a relatively new category; it’s a term we hear more with primary aged and older children, although it is increasingly being recognised in early years. I work for a specialised organisation in Bath called Threeways Brighter Futures; we work with children who have all been identified as needing additional support with their social, emotional and mental health needs. We work with the children once a week throughout their reception year in school, supporting them and their staff team. In this article, I will briefly explore SEMH needs and ways to support children.

We need to view SEMH within a model of difference rather than one of deficit. We are all on a SEMH needs continuum, and we all need to have our SEMH needs met. As practitioners, it is important we are recognising and meeting the SEMH needs of all our children. Sometimes it is apparent when and why a child has high SEMH needs, but other times this is less obvious.

A quick definition of social, emotional and mental health needs is:
  • Children who find it challenging to manage their feeling, emotions and behaviours
  • Children who find everyday change challenging and frightening
  • Children who find it hard to build relationships with adults and other children
  • Children who can find it hard to join in with the activities and routine with the rest of the group or class
There is a range of behaviours that you might regularly see with children who have high SEMH needs; some of these are:
  • Violent outbursts to adults and other key children
  • Distress because the parent/key person is not with them
  • Running off
  • Refusal to join or follow instructions
  • Needing to be in control and controlling things around them
  • Frozen behaviours when they appear to shut down
  • Hiding
  • Withdrawing from adults
  • Self-harm
  • Easily startled by loud noise, sudden movement.
  • Prolonged temper tantrums
  • Sleeping difficulties

When you first glance at these behaviours, you may recognise one or two children in your care who regularly display some or most of these behaviours. If you see some of these behaviours in any of the children you support, I encourage you to start being curious about why and what this is telling you. We know that behaviour is the primary way a child communicates; when a child behaves in any of the ways above, this tells us that something is not right for them. Our job is to explore and understand what this is and then try and help them.

There can be many reasons why a child is displaying higher SEMH needs. Our job is not to diagnose but to recognise and then signpost to other agencies when this is appropriate and offer support to the child and family. Some of the reasons may be due to adverse childhood experiences (ACES); if this is a new term, I encourage you to look at this link to find out more. Or some other reasons may be that a child has recently moved home, is experiencing family illness, a new sibling. However, some children have no apparent reason, but they are still showing high SEMH needs.

What we can do

Helping children to have a rich emotional vocabulary and understanding is vital as an underpinning to all work around SEMH. There are many different resources, books available, or you can make your own. Regularly naming and recognising the wide range of emotions children and adults are experiencing is essential. We all have a range of emotions, and these are neither negative nor positive, we can help children recognise these emotions and name them from a young age. In my work, I use script a lot, using the “I wonder” phrase. If I see a child is struggling, I comment, “I wonder if you are feeling cross, I understand it is hard, but it’s not ok to hurt your friends; let me help you.” This phrase is helpful as it helps to name the emotion; it validates how the child is feeling but has the boundary around the behaviour and is offering support. I encourage everyone to use the same script, all the staff and parents.

In the early years, we talk about children being able to regulate; this is a tricky skill to learn for many children. When a child is dysregulated, they need calm and safe adults around them to help them regulate; they cannot do it independently. We can co-regulate by controlling our breathing, gently coming alongside the child at their level, calmly speaking to the child, not using too many words. The child needs to know they are safe and loved; being dysregulated is a frightening experience, they need to have an adult alongside who can help them.

When we can see a child is finding something challenging, a sensory activity can often support them, helping them either release some of their strong inner feelings or help bring some calmness. We need to know the child well to know what they are needing. Below are some examples I regularly use.

For a child who needs to release some of their stresses and big feelings:
  • Climbing 
  • Pushing something heavy e.g. a wheelbarrow with things in it
  • Pulling on a dog toy (think mini tug of war with an adult)
  • Throwing or kicking a ball
For a child who needs something calming:
  • Playdough (homemade if possible, link to recipe below)
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Crazy soap (a bit like shaving foam but more malleable)
  • Sensory rice (link to recipe below) 
  • Spend time outside, cloud watching or going on a nature walk to notice colours/smells/textures
  • These are very simple ideas that will support any child when their SEMH needs are higher. 

Key points

  • A child is communicating to us through their behaviour; so we need to try and understand what they are telling us
  • Emotions are neither negative nor positive; we can help children learn about their feeling
  • Children need adults who are calm, loving and safe to help them co-regulate

For more information take a look at my new book.

In October, I will be writing about how we can support staff well-being when working with children with SEMH needs.


Sonia Mainstone-Cotton

Sonia Mainstone-Cotton is a freelance nurture consultant, she has worked in early years for 30 years. Sonia currently works in a specialist team in Bath supporting 3- and 4-year-olds who have social, emotional and mental health needs. Sonia also trains staff across the country: she specialises in supporting the wellbeing of children and staff. Sonia has written 8 books including: 

Supporting children with social, emotional and mental health needs in the early years” published by Routledge,  Supporting young children through change and everyday transitions”, “Promoting Emotional Wellbeing in Early Years Staff” and “Promoting Young Children’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing”. Sonia is also the series advisor for Little Minds Matter series of books promoting social and emotional wellbeing in the early years with Routledge.

Website - http://soniamainstone-cotton.com

Email - sonia.main@icloud.com

Instagram - @mainstonecotton


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